If I close my eyes and sit quietly, I can still picture the expression on her face. My breath catches in my throat. I remember the tiny sob that escaped as I tried to say, “Amen.”
Two weeks ago, I experienced a spiritually charged moment in synagogue. In my experience, that’s pretty rare. Like many people I know, I enjoy the social aspect of attending synagogue and endure the lengthy services and sermons. I feel closer to God in silent mediation.
However, on the morning of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah, every word of the morning prayers seemed to be infused with divine energy. Dalia has autism and is non-verbal; she cannot communicate with words what this moment meant to her. Still, her excitement was palpable throughout the service. It was unlike any Bat Mitzvah and just like every Bat Mitzvah I’ve attended, only more so: more joy, more crying, more coming together as one community.
Dalia’s mother, Rebecca, and I forged a friendship when she approached me more than a year ago. She thought my input both as a mother and rabbi would help her as she designed a ceremony that would accommodate her daughter’s special needs. I’ll never forget our first lunch meeting; Rebecca brought a legal pad filled with notes and questions that she had essentially already answered. I reassured her that she knew, better than anyone, what Dalia could learn and achieve.
Two weeks ago, after countless hours of preparation and endless attention to detail, including several rehearsals, Dalia showed just what she was capable of doing. Using her communication device that was programmed with visual supports/prayers from Gateways’ resources and wired to the synagogue’s sound system, Dalia sang the blessings before and after she signed the Shema as her Torah reading: “Praised are you, God, Giver of the Torah.” The congregation of more than 150 honored guests answered, “Amen.”
As a mother, I know what this rite of passage meant to Rebecca. We both want our children to feel they have a place in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. As a teacher, I share Rebecca’s belief that “kids with autism are so capable, it just takes time and patience to help them succeed in their own way.” Each of us strives to fulfill the biblical instruction, “Teach a child according to her path; she will not swerve from it even in old age.” (Proverbs 22:6)
One reason Rebecca encouraged media coverage of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah is she hopes that parents of children with autism who Google “autism” and “bat mitzvah” will see Dalia, will see what can be possible for their children to accomplish.
I also have hopes. I hope to see Dalia, and other kids with autism, in our synagogues all the time. I hope to see articles about their b’nai mitzvah in my Facebook newsfeed all year, not only during Jewish Disability Awareness Month. I hope to experience more joy, and more crying, as each child finds his or her path to Torah.
Having opted to leave the Interstate and take the shortest route, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself traveling over mountains and across the Tennessee River on a winding State Highway. But I had no idea what mountains traversed the Georgia-Alabama border. I silently chided myself for my inadequate study of local geography and vowed to consult a map when I returned home.
I’d spent some weeks preparing for my first visit to Huntsville. I practiced the Torah reading, perused the materials sent by the synagogue’s lay leader and photocopied texts for our Saturday afternoon study session. I thought about what wisdom to share with the community of Etz Chayim and how to encourage their questions, to allow their interests to guide our conversations.
In Huntsville, I met engineers, professors and, of course, rocket scientists. I also met artists, farmers, teachers, writers and retirees who volunteer in the community. The Jews of Etz Chayim are an eclectic group; the one thing they share is a concern for the future of their synagogue.
The demographic reality in Huntsville, like that of many smaller cities across the southeast, is that its Jewish population is aging as the younger generation migrates to larger cities following graduation from college. Huntsville’s young adult to middle aged population, employed predominantly by high-tech industry and manufacturing sectors, may be especially transient because of the fast-paced, changing nature of their work.
Etz Chayim hosts a visiting rabbi on a monthly basis. “When the rabbi’s in town,” they tell me, “there is a good turnout for Friday night and Saturday morning services. On other weekends, only a few people attend on Saturdays.” This was difficult to imagine, because the group that gathered to study Torah was comprised of highly educated and engaged Jews, who posed challenging questions about the text and made connections between Exodus, African rituals, Kabbalah and Moby Dick.
We spent much of Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast confronting challenging questions related to the sustainability of this community. I told them that I have no answers, yet I possess an abiding optimism that they will find creative solutions. This congregation is both devoted to preserving the synagogue’s heritage and committed to exploring new ways of flourishing in the 21st century.
I’m grateful to these wise people, who not only offered me Southern Jewish hospitality in Huntsville, but also an opportunity to fulfill the mission of Rabbis Without Borders, “to make Jewish wisdom an accessible resource to help people enrich their lives.” My life was enriched through studying with and serving them.
I extended my studies through Monday: Checking an atlas when I arrived home, I learned Huntsville is on the other side of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains.
These are exciting times for Jewish social justice. This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort. American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking. Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community. I could go on and on.
But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level. Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?
This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.
But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There is a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.
Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls. But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.
A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns. She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.
So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?
I think there are at least three reasons for the decline. First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond our neighborhoods. Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.
Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?
Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, some rabbis avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics. Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages.
I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected teenagers and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.
Additionally, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice. If we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.
Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms. There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. This spirit of societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Israelite kings. This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!
Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.
The majesty and transcendence of the High Holidays are behind us. Rosh Hashanah with its coronation of God and Yom Kippur with the liturgical immersion into the Holy of Holies of the Holy Temple has passed. The machzorim, the special prayer books, have been put back into the storage rooms. The shofar has been put back on to the shelf and the grocery stores will stop ordering extra quantities of apples and honey until next year. That seat you spent so many hours in at synagogue (or the seat that you purchased but barely saw during these past two weeks) will also resume its normal life of being unoccupied. The cushion will resettle, the indentations will be erased and dust will begin to collect. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What would happen if you didn’t let your seat at synagogue go unused this new year? What would happen if you came back and visited that seat when no ticket was needed to sit in it. The machzorim are put away but in their stead you will find the siddur, the year round prayer book. Do you believe your experience during the next round of High Holidays would be different if you were more than an annual visitor?
People sometimes compare the High Holidays to the Superbowl. No matter if you are a fan all year or even know the rules of the game there is something captivating about tuning into the game on the big day and knowing you are joining hundreds of millions of other people who are doing the same thing. The comparison has a point but it also falls short.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not built like the Superbowl. They are not built with an easy ability to tap into with no prior experience or knowledge. There are no multi-million dollar commercials in the midst of the service or professional athletes facing off against each other. Instead there is the sublime poetry and prose of the prayers. There are the melodies, some very old and some very new, that are meant to enter our heart and soul and move us in a religious experience. There is the introspection and reflection that finds its peak during the High Holidays. This is not the sort of thing that can be readily experienced at its fullest with no prior background. The ticket you purchased gains you entry into the building and a seat to sit on but if that is the only time you sit in that seat all year you very will might find yourself unable to access the moment you have paid for and craving to find some of its relevancy in your life.
So this year let us find time to fill that seat throughout the year. It’s alright to dip your toes in gently and build as time progresses. Build familiarity with the rhythm of Jewish ritual and prayer. Stretch those muscles of introspection and reflection. By doing so you may find that the next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be an entirely different experience. Your seat will recognize you, the cushion will not be dusty, the prayer book will be an old friend and the melodies will penetrate your heart and lift you in soulful meaning.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is finished for the year but your seat will not be lonely for the next eleven months. Shanah Tovah, a good, sweet year of meaning making and spiritual growth to all.
How do you close a synagogue? This is the question I have been confronting for the past few months as the shul I have served these past two years edged closer and closer to our final Shabbat this past weekend. I offer the following reflections of what I fear will be an increasingly frequent phenomenon in American Jewish life.
Once we concluded that it was no longer financially feasible to remain an ongoing synagogue, we—our board of directors, led by our President, our staff, and myself—made sure that we would move forward with transparency and dignity. We sent a letter to all our congregants informing them of our situation and that we wanted to hear from them. We gave them three options: 1) merge with another existing synagogue; 2) downsize to a small space and eliminate our overhead, including our religious school staff, and try to keep on going as a Havurah; or 3) close down and help members transition to new synagogues. After numerous conversations, it became clear that the vast majority of our congregants preferred option 3.
We spoke with a local Reform synagogue and a nearby Conservative one to apprise them of our situation and coordinated open houses so that our members could see what Shabbat services were like at each. We did not push affiliation at either venue but encouraged our members to make their own decisions, based on their individual needs, and to let us know once they did so we could keep the community in the loop. Once people began to make some decisions, we held a synagogue-wide meeting so that we could acknowledge the emotional trauma of closing down; let people know what others were thinking; and answer additional questions people had about the process going forward.
I also felt that it was important that we finish off our synagogue year with integrity. Though morale was low, our indefatigable religious school director and I made sure that we carried forward with our curriculum, including various innovative end-of-year events, and didn’t let talk about who was going where seep into our students’ in-class conversations. When the media got wind of rumors about our troubles—before any final decisions had been made about our future—we reiterated again and again that we were open and active through June and would get back to them if and when any final decisions were made. We also spent a good deal of attention planning for a Bat Mitzvah that was set to take place a week before we closed; focusing on the joy of this life-cycle event was a bulwark against the pessimism of our impending closure. We arranged for our three Torah scrolls to go to happy new homes, arranged for our Yahrzeit plaques to go to another synagogue where Kaddish could be said annually, and invited our congregants to come reclaim items they had donated or items that held personal resonance for them.
As we drew closer to our closing, we thought it best to have a farewell Shabbat service. We invited current and past members to attend, catered a Kiddush, and held a lovely tribute service. We honored various groups with aliyot, from our founders to our teachers to those who cooked and cleaned for our events. We had our Bnai Mitzvah alumni help lead the Torah service and had our current religious school students end our service with a rousing Adon Olam. I also gave time during my sermon for people to share their memories and say their farewells. In my final address, I did not shy away from the sadness I, and many others felt, at our inability to live up to our potential. But I also thought it was important to acknowledge all those who had sacrificed so much time and treasure to make this a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, these past fifteen years. And I ended with a kernel of hope, suggesting the metaphor of a supernova:
“Kol Ami [the name of our synagogue] is like a supernova. A supernova is what happens when a star dies; it is an explosion so bright that it blocks out everything else around it. Similarly, sadness from Kol Ami’s closing is all we can think about right now, overwhelming us from finding anything positive to express. But the remnants of a supernova explosion, the elements that emerge after the explosion cools, form the very particles needed for the creation of new stars and planets. Just as our world could not have been formed without a previous star exploding, it is my hope and prayer that we will take precious remnants from our history at Kol Ami and use them to form new planets of Jewish existence and engagement in the coming years. Every end is also a new beginning.”
The closure of any synagogue is tragic for its congregants and a loss for the broader community. While we have found new homes for most of our families, I worry about the empty-nesters in our midst who don’t want to start over with a new shul but yearn for the fellowship of the community they have come to enjoy. I also fear that our shul closure is the proverbial canary in a coal mine alert about the prospects for observant Jewish communities in suburban and exurban America. But by attempting to close our shul with mindfulness and derekh eretz, I hope that we at least were able to mitigate some of the pain and anguish our congregants experienced.
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A few days ago, I ran across an article asking a rabbi what a person could do instead of going to shul to say kaddish. The person in question wasn’t bed-bound—he just didn’t like going to shul.
It’s a difficult question for a rabbi to deal with—although the author of this article did pretty well- because it’s difficult to know what the real underlying question is: Why doesn’t this person like going to shul—is it because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is saying? Is it because he draws no comfort from attending a service with people he doesn’t know? Is it because he is unfamiliar with the service?
Similarly, there are many people who are beginning to ask themselves if a minyan could be made online? These don’t seem like related questions, but they are, in that they come from a place where we are unfamiliar with our communities—we no longer need to fear friendship with non-Jews, but in doing so, many of us have failed to develop relationships with our own family, our own tradition – and then, when we seek comfort from it, we find it alien.
I wonder what the boundaries are for our ability to Jewish when we are not face-to-face. Going to shul is such an important part of being in the Jewish community—even for those who don’t love prayer, or don’t understand it well. And what, also, do we say to the person who doesn’t like shul: of course we hope they’ll connect in other ways, but it seems wrong to simply let the person give up on one of the ways we have to directly connect with one another—people we may have nothing in common with, other than being there for each other at a difficult time. And what of the idea that perhaps it isn’t only about you—that it is for others—God, our people, the deceased—that we do these things?
The internet sometimes gets proposed as a solution to this (and related) problems. But even if we set aside the problem of using electronic networks on Shabbat and other restrictive days, how much benefit to us as individuals or as a people could there be in a connection which never demands anything of us (because, for example, how can you bring food to the mourning community member who lives more than a day’s drive away?), and what happens to the idea of a people, even?
And yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from an internet community. I do see how it has enabled me to reconnect with people far from me and stay connected to people I might not otherwise stay connected with, even if it is not the same as the relationships I have with the people who are right here, next door.
What do you think those limitations are? Can we build true Jewish communities online?
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Back in biblical times, Israelites would come to the great Temple three times a year, in the fall, and at the beginning and end of spring, corresponding to the festivals of Sukkot (now upon us), Passover, and Shavuot. The commandment was to “appear at God’s appointed place and celebrate – three times a year.” (Ex. 23:17).
What if that is enough? I have said from the pulpit on Yom Kippur that “if you are here today as your once a year, please go home and come back on Sukkot.” I meant it then, and still do. If your once a year is this heavy, often guilt laden burden, that is a tough nut to crack. Come back on Sukkot, better, come at the end of Sukkot, for Simchat Torah – there is dancing, and if you’re into it, drinking too. Plus, there is nature, and guests, and food. Yom Kippur has fasting.
Of course, we are the not the people of the Bible, the “People of the Book.” Rather, we are “the People of the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Book.” The rabbis who brought us our Judaism emphasized daily practice just as much as milestone moments designed after these pilgrimage holidays. To be sure, there is great power in the everyday.There is structure and meaning in taking note of the miraculously ordinary. Nonetheless, there is obviously great power in the extra-ordinary.
Imagine going to see your favorite musician or band. The last great concert I went to was a Soundgarden concert. When the boys cut their guitar chords and let the reverb ride out for a full 5 min. it was, fairly literally, a religious experience. Would it feel the same if I went to hear them every week? Every day? Three times a day?
By analogy I am suggesting that rabbis and religious leaders need to distinguish the purpose of religious experiences. Some moments are for the well initiated, the regulars, the ones who feel comfortable in the service, any service. These people often enough have a sense of the divine in what others might perceive as ordinary (sitting, standing, reading). When some people try and connect this way and fail, they come away with a sense of “I guess I don’t read meaningfully enough, or sit powerfully enough, or I don’t sway with book in hand well enough.”
But there are other moments, ecstatic moments, that are created with music, with dance, with a good old-fashioned “happening” that draw on the power of the crowd, on swaying together, eating together, and just being together that is transformative. For many Jews who connect deeper in this manner, I am wondering out loud: Maybe three times a year is enough?
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”
Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”
The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.
But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.
The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays. The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.